Denial hides pain that never goes away

By Christian Piatt

Denial is defined as a defense mechanism which is used to shield someone from a situation that is deemed too painful to face, even when evidence stands overwhelmingly in opposition to their personal views. Such behavior is documented throughout the Bible, the most famous instance of which is Peter’s denial of Jesus. It’s still a powerful precept in the modern world.

On the global level, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the most recent – and most outspoken – Holocaust denialist. How can someone who seems articulate, well-read and charismatic enough to lead a nation hold such an apparently distorted opinion?

Because it fits with the way he wants to see the world.

There are varying degrees of Holocaust denial, varying from outright rejection of the entire concept as a tool of Jewish conspiracy to historical revisionism. Historian Donald Niewyk of Southern Methodist University says, “With the main features of the Holocaust clearly visible to all but the willfully blind, historians have turned their attention to aspects of the story for which the evidence is incomplete or ambiguous.” Basically, those who would have the story change nitpick at inconsistencies or information vacuums to insert their own agenda.

How much effect does this ultimately have? Not much. Most Holocaust deniers are considered to be loonies, as evidenced by Ahmadinejad’s eroding base of support within his own country.

Perhaps a more powerful example is the pervasive AIDS denial taking place throughout many countries in Africa. It has been deemed by many African leaders, from presidents on down, that antiretroviral drugs created by western drug companies are only tools of extermination meant to poison Africans on a massive scale.

Press secretaries and cabinet members claim in public that HIV has no relationship to AIDS. Meanwhile they advocate for herbal folk remedies, sold out of storefronts for $100 a liter. None of these has been scientifically tested, yet the president of South Africa, as only one example, claims the real solution to AIDS will come from such homemade cures.

Domestically, denial about the environmental impacts of our own consumption-driven lifestyles caused us to abandon the international Kyoto Accord. Though the theory was that its goals were not progressive enough, we continue to be surpassed by a majority of developed nations with respect to CO2 emissions and other pollutants. Only recently has our administration conceded that any problems related to global warming exist, acknowledging at least that polar bears are losing their native habitat.

Who was the President’s foremost consultant on global warming, the one who claims it still does not exist? Fiction author Michael Crichton.

On a more personal note, we choose regularly not to acknowledge the impact of our own behaviors. From the cars we drive to the clothes and groceries we buy and the entertainment we devour, we willfully occlude the obvious oppression to which we contribute. Theologian Fred Craddock, whom I have quoted before, says we can’t put a quarter in a soft drink machine without contributing to oppression.

Do we really want to know the full impact of our existence on the rest of the world, or do we choose to live in denial? If indeed there is a day of judgment, I expect we’ll experience a profound moment of clarity, at which point we’ll become harshly aware of the ripple effect of every choice we’ve made in our lives. Gross misconduct like murders and theft are given, but there will be much more subtlety to the transgressions for which we’ll be held accountable.

It’s easy enough to point fingers at leaders such as Bush or Ahmadinejad, because their laundry is hung up for all to see. But the evidence of our own wrongdoing is evident enough for anyone who chooses to see it. Will we choose to acknowledge it, or is it just too painful?

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